Engage, Don't Isolate, Iran


Jun 27, 2004

This commentary originally appeared in The San Diego Union Tribune on June 27, 2004.

Last week, Iran Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi increased the temperature of global debate about his country's nuclear programs. "Iran has a high technical capability," he said at a Tehran press conference, "and has to be recognized by the international community as a member of the nuclear club. This is an irreversible path."

Kharrazi's declaration, along with ambiguous Iranian responses to demands for information by the International Atomic Energy Agency, has increased concerns that Iran is determined to cross the so-called nuclear threshold.

But even if this conclusion is correct, there remains the question of what do about it. Finding the answer needs to begin with some hard analysis, not just hand wringing and foreboding about the potential need for a military riposte against Iran.

For years, the United States and many of its allies have sought to keep the nuclear club restricted, certainly to keep these deadly weapons out of the hands of countries that could be labeled as "rogues." They might, for example, either lack caution in the diplomatic use of a nuclear capability (India, Pakistan) or transfer nuclear technology to a third country or terrorist group (North Korea).

U.S. efforts to impose controls over the spread of nuclear weapons focus on keeping countries from getting the technical means for building and delivering the bomb, and particularly the all-essential plutonium or enriched uranium. Rarely have U.S. administrations considered the incentives that countries have to build nuclear weapons, with a view to helping provide some alternative means for satisfying such ambitions — assuming the ambitions have some legitimacy, such as providing for security against palpable external threats.

Before looking to the military option, the United States needs to consider this avenue of approach —if only because war against Iran, or even an attack on elements of its nuclear program, could be at great cost, not least in intensifying the need for the United States and its military to assume responsibility for Persian Gulf security for decades longer than is already the case.

Most needed is old-fashioned strategic analysis, beginning with recognition that Iran does feel insecure in its neighborhood. This is not just because of historic tensions with neighbors like Iraq (now pacified in terms of its regional situation), but also because it is surrounded by U.S. military power and a declared U.S. intent on bringing about regime change.

For years, America supported Iranian exile groups in military operations within Iran, including the Mujahedin-e-Khalq, which was harbored by Iraq's Saddam Hussein and has only recently been put on the U.S. list of terrorist groups. In his January 2002 State of the Union address, President George Bush also included Iran on his list of "axis of evil" states. Whether that was fair characterization, leaders in Iran could reasonably assume they were on a U.S. hit list. So, we should not be surprised if U.S. statements and actions reinforce any Iranian ambitions to acquire a nuclear capability.

We also need to analyze strategic interests in the Persian Gulf region. Here the picture is not a solid negative.

To start with, Iran shares the U.S. interest in not having an Iraq that is a renewed source of stress and possible conflict or that could acquire its own weapons of mass destruction. Further, by its actions since 9/ll, Iran has demonstrated that it cannot tolerate an Afghanistan that is a breeding ground for Taliban politics and al-Qaeda or other terrorism, or that again becomes the dominant producer and exporter of the world's opium.

In the region, U.S. and Iranian strategic and political interests are thus increasingly compatible and complementary — though obviously not identical. This gradual change began with the 1991 Persian Gulf War and was proclaimed as such by President George H.W. Bush, who also promised that "good will will beget goodwill."

Certainly, the United States — and the West — could benefit significantly both in Iraq and Afghanistan if Washington and Tehran were able to work together on some key strategic problems. But elements in Iran that understand both the potential gain from helping the United States in the region and the perils of making the U.S. task worse need to be strengthened.

Ostensibly, the United States resists testing the possibilities of a new relationship with Iran because of Iran's nuclear weapons program, its opposition to success in Arab-Israeli peacemaking, and its continued support for terrorism, including Hezbollah. America wants Iran to change these policies, but there has been no practical attempt to discover whether that can be accomplished.

In May 2003, when the United States had just conquered Iraq, the Financial Times now reveals that an informal but credible message was relayed to Washington by the Swiss ambassador who represents U.S. interests in Tehran. The message from Iran proposed discussion and accommodation on the full list of U.S. demands; but there is no evidence of any U.S. willingness or effort to test these proposals.

At least once before in modern times, a U.S. administration thought through again the strategic and political issues in a region critical to us and decided that reaching out to an adversary made sense in terms of U.S. interests. This was in 1971, when President Richard Nixon went to China to try transforming the strategic context of an increasingly unpopular war. New ties with China provided a viable basis for effective engagement with one of the world's most critical regions.

Nixon's trip to China did require his breaking the mold of U.S. domestic politics. As with Iran today, in 1971 American attitudes toward China were still festering. But Nixon put strategic interest ahead of ideological fervor and national memory. The result has been a generation of peace in East Asia, plus the development of economic interdependence and mutual profit across the Pacific.

No historic parallel is exact nor, regarding the potential strategic benefits to the United States from a new relationship with Iran, does it need to be. That country is well along in its "mellowing" — indeed, it is rapidly developing the first Islamic reformation of the modern age. Its democratic evolution still has a long way to go but is already ahead of other regional countries save Israel, Turkey and Lebanon. The role of women in Iranian society is as advanced as in any Arab country. And the Iranian people's thirst for modernization and remarkably positive attitudes toward Americans and Western culture provide an added basis for a new state-to-state relationship.

As with Nixon's reversal of long-standing U.S. policy on China, it is hard for leaders to shift policy or even to acknowledge the potential value of doing so, especially in the face of active domestic political opposition. As with China, it is difficult to explore a new relationship with a perceived adversarial country.

Iran's nuclear program is strategically and politically the most important challenge to U.S. and Western interests and, unchecked, it can become an active and unacceptable threat. Few observers, inside or outside the United States, see this as other than dangerous business. It is all the more surprising, therefore, that this nation has been unprepared to open a dialogue with Tehran and to use that dialogue to juxtapose, in a possible package deal, Iran's nuclear program and its legitimate security requirements.

There is, in short, much potentially for the United States to gain through direct talks with Iran and the offer of a new strategic, economic, and political relationship, in exchange for a halt to the Iranian nuclear weapons program and other activities of deep concern to America. Even if this effort were stillborn and the conservatives in Tehran proved to be obdurate, America could still pursue other efforts to change Iranian behavior.

Hunter is a senior adviser at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization, and was United States ambassador to NATO from 1993 to 1998.

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